THE BEST SORT OF DEATH
After returning from the races to his Via Sacra residence, Caesar may have gone to the bathhouse. Then, refreshed and dressed, he would have slipped into his litter. The litter, the preferred form of travel for the Roman elite, was like a bed with carrying poles, the top equipped with a frame supporting curtains that could be closed. Litter curtains were invariably closed when the modest Roman matron, wearing headdress and veil, was borne about. Caesar was carried by brawny slaves a short distance to the city mansion of Marcus Lepidus, the Dictator’s Master of Equestrians and deputy. The precise location of Lepidus’s home is unknown, but it is likely to have been on the Palatine Hill or the Aventine Hill, both then favored locations for the homes of the wealthy.
Caesar’s litter crossed the city escorted by the twenty-four lictors to which he was entitled as Dictator. Lictors were often former centurions. In official processions, each lictor carried a bundle of rods tied with red ribbon surrounding an ax, symbolizing the Roman magistrate’s right of punishment, his power over life and death. Under Roman law, a citizen condemned to execution for a capital crime was whipped with rods, then beheaded. On informal occasions such as this visit to a friend ’s house for a private dinner, a Dictator’s lictors preceded the litter carrying wooden staves, clearing the way.
Caesar had not always been accompanied by such a small escort. The previous December, when he had visited the western coast of Italy for rest and recreation following his return from the war in Spain, he had been surrounded by an escort of two thousand horsemen. Many of these men had been the bearded, long-haired Germans of the loyal mounted bodyguard that had accompanied Caesar everywhere during the Gallic War and Civil War.
One of the people Caesar had called on during this sojourn on the western coast had been Cicero. The orator had written to a friend about the Dictator’s stay at his seaside villa at Puteoli, on the Bay of Naples, on December 19: “The house was so thronged by the soldiers that there was hardly a spare room for Caesar himself to dine in. Two thousand men, no less!” These troops had pitched tents in the villa ’s garden, and a guard was placed on the house as if it were a military camp.¹
By March, Caesar’s trusty German bodyguards had left Italy, apparently allowed to go home to retirement by Caesar after their long service, in many cases having served him for as much as a decade. Two of Caesar’s closest subordinates by this time, his longtime aide Aulus Hirtius and Gaius Pansa, both of whom Caesar had appointed consuls for the next year, urged him to maintain a strong bodyguard, for they “had always warned Caesar that he must hold by arms the position which he had won by arms.”²
Hirtius and Pansa were undoubtedly the friends who, according to Appian, had wanted him to employ as his bodyguard in Rome a cohort or two of the retired Spanish legionaries now camped on Tiber Island and elsewhere around Rome. Cohorts from one of the Spanish legions, the 7th, had acted as his bodyguard when he returned to Rome between Civil War campaigns in 47 B.C. Appian said of Caesar’s friends, “When they inquired if he would agree to having the Spanish cohorts as his bodyguard again, he said, ‘ There is no worse fate than to be continuously protected, for that means you are in constant fear.’ ”³ Velleius Paterculus repeated the sentiment: “Caesar kept reiterating that he would rather die than live in fear.”⁴
The ancient laws of Rome forbade armed men from entering the gates of the city in times of peace. The situation had been markedly different in 47 B.C.; a civil war was in progress then, and three rebellious, fully armed legions had been encamped on the Campus Martius, just outside the city walls, making a large armed escort a necessity. Now no such obvious threat existed. While Caesar had trampled on numerous ancient laws, to have been seen with an armed escort inside the city now, in peacetime, would have signaled his fear of assassination. Caesar was astute enough to realize that the appearance of fear gives hope to adversaries, and that by showing fear we often ignite the very thing we seek to protect ourselves against. The deflection of threat by a display of fearlessness is the basis of many a proverb.
It was known at this time that Caesar was not a well man. Suetonius reported that Caesar’s health was in decline, while fellow historian Appian wrote, “He suffered from epileptic fits and sudden spasms, particularly when he was not busy.”⁵ Suetonius said that the knowledge of Caesar’s declining health made some of his friends later suspect that he had dispensed with bodyguards because he no longer desired to live much longer.⁶
Yet Caesar was about to throw himself into a three-year military campaign, which was surely not something a man in poor health or with a death wish would undertake. Suetonius wrote that it also had been suggested that Caesar placed complete confidence in the decree made during the last sitting of the Senate in which all senators and Equestrians had vowed to act as his protectors. “A contrary view,” Suetonius went on, “is that he deliberately exposed himself just this once to all the plots against his life which he knew had been formed.”⁷ Why Caesar would do that—through an intention to out those who wished him dead, or because of a death wish, perhaps—we are not told.
Yet Caesar seems to have genuinely believed that no Roman would strike against him. It was his view that the alternative to his dictatorship was chaos. Likewise, he believed that all thinking Romans shared his view and, for their own good, would do whatever they could to preserve his life and rule. It was almost as if Caesar considered his rule blessed by the gods. Suetonius wrote, “He is quoted as having often said: ‘It is more important for Rome than for myself that I should survive. I have long been sated with power and glory, but should anything happen to me, Rome will enjoy no peace. A new civil war will break out under far worse conditions than the last.’ ”⁸
Even Caesar’s lictors would have been left in an anteroom as he joined Lepidus in his dining room for the evening’s repast on March 14. Lepidus had become Caesar’s most trusted subordinate after favorites such as Antony and Dolabella had disappointed him. Lepidus was a man of good family, being the son of a consul. Ambitious, he had chosen to throw in his lot with the man he felt would win the Civil War, after Caesar had proven victorious against Pompey’s legions in Spain. As a praetor in 49 B.C., Lepidus had led the Senate assembled at Rome by Caesar in proclaiming him Dictator for the first time. For his reward, Lepidus had received the governorship of Nearer Spain from Caesar. He had occupied that post in 48-47 B.C., showing both initiative and resolve in a difficult situation As a consequence, Caesar had appointed him his co-consul in 46 B.C.
Lepidus had married one of Marcus Brutus’s half-sisters, another Junia—the women’s clan name was Junius. Despite this family connection, Brutus was not close to Lepidus in the way he was close to his other brother-in-law, Cassius. Brutus would never have entertained the idea of approaching Lepidus to draw him into the murder conspiracy. No one, apart from Julius Caesar, felt that Lepidus could be entirely trusted. Lepidus was, in the opinion of Velleius Paterculus, “the most fickle of mankind.”⁹ Lepidus was considered by contemporaries to be such a weathercock, inclining in the direction of the prevailing political wind, that the conspirators feared that were the murder plot revealed to him by Brutus or another conspirator he would almost certainly rush to tell Caesar.
Coin portraits of Lepidus show a bony man with a large, angular nose, small chin, long neck, and thick hair brushed back. As he had demonstrated during his time in charge in Nearer Spain, he had tact and guile in sufficient measure to act as a conciliator. Compared to immature young Dolabella and boorish Antony, Lepidus would have seemed to Caesar, of all his leading subordinates, to have been almost statesmanlike.
This dinner hosted by Lepidus was an intimate affair, an opportunity for Caesar to relax out of the limelight after a day in front of the crowds at the races. Lepidus’s only other dinner guest was Decimus Brutus Albinus—unbeknownst to him, one of the men plotting to kill Caesar. Not only did Caesar rank Albinus among his most trusted associates, it also would be revealed once the contents of his will became public that he considered him like family, making him his heir in the second degree—Roman heirs in the second degree inherited when heirs of the first degree were unable or unwilling to accept a bequest. Under the terms of this will, Caesar even made provision to adopt Albinus as his son should he inherit his estate.
With these two valued and trusted lieutenants, Caesar could drop his guard this evening. The meal they shared would not have been lavish. Unlike many wealthy Romans—Mark Antony, for example—Caesar was not known as a fussy eater or a man who enjoyed large banquets. Just the opposite, in fact. According to Gaius Oppius, his aide throughout the Civil War, Caesar cared little for good food.¹⁰ Caesar’s was “a coarse diet,” said Plutarch.¹¹ He had a soldier’s plain taste. Nor did he like to be seen to be eating any better than his guests, on one occasion clapping his baker in irons for serving him better bread at dinner than that provided to his guests.¹²
A famous story related about Caesar by several classical authors told of the time he went to supper at the house of Valerius Leo at Mediolanum in Cisalpine Gaul, today’s Milan in northern Italy. “A dish of asparagus was put before him on which his host instead of [olive] oil had poured sweet ointment,” said Plutarch. “Caesar partook of it without any disgust, and reprimanded his friends for finding fault with it.” ‘It is enough not to eat what you did not like,’ Caesar is reported to have said to his companions, “but he who reflects on another man’s lack of breeding shows he lacks it as much himself.’”¹³
Only occasionally did Caesar eat and drink with abandon. Cicero wrote, of Caesar’s reaction to the banquet the orator put on for him on December 19, 45 B.C., “He was following a course of emetics.” That is, Caesar deliberately vomited up all he ate after the meal. This was prescribed by physicians of the day as a means of improving health. “And so [he] both ate and drank with uninhibited enjoyment. It was really a fine, well-appointed meal.” Over dinner the Dictator and the orator had talked of mainly literary matters. “All in all, he was pleased, and enjoyed himself.” Having to also feed Caesar’s vast entourage had proven a burden to Cicero. It was, he wrote to a friend, “A visit, or should I call it a billeting, which as I said was troublesome to me but not disagreeable.”¹⁴
With Caesar reclining on a dining couch in Lepidus’s triclinium between Lepidus and Albinus as they ate, Caesar probably related a story about a recent visit from Cicero later repeated to Cicero by Gaius Matius, a friend of Caesar for many years. Cicero had gone to the Regia to seek a favor on behalf of one of his friends, Publius Sestius. Seeing Cicero sitting in the Regia vestibule, waiting to be summoned, Caesar had said to Matius, who was with him at the time, “There is Marcus Cicero sitting waiting and cannot get to see me at his own convenience. He is the most easygoing of mankind, but I don’t doubt that he detests me.”¹⁵
Caesar had been not far from the mark. Cicero, while keeping it to himself, at this time considered Caesar a “vile being” and a tyrant.¹⁶ Had Brutus and the murder conspirators only known it, they could have signed Cicero up for the assassination plot without fear of negativity. The Dictator, Cicero would write in April, had become the object of his “hatred and grief.”¹⁷
The main subject of dinner conversation among Caesar, Lepidus, and Albinus on March 14 would undoubtedly have been Caesar ’s upcoming military campaign. All the preparations had been made. The legions had their marching orders, and they and thousands of cavalrymen from around Caesar’s empire were honing their fighting skills with final training. Supplies were being readied. Weapons and ammunition had been manufactured and stockpiled. Many middle-ranking officers of Equestrian rank had already left Rome to join their units.
More senior officers would accompany Caesar when he departed the capital on March 19. Lepidus would remain at Rome. The position of Master of Equestrians made Lepidus the most powerful of all the Roman magistrates in Caesar’s absence, with only the tribunes of the plebs retaining any real power. By the end of spring, other men among Caesar’s subordinates also would depart from Rome to take up provincial commands; in Albinus’s case, he was due to leave Rome for the governorship of Cisalpine Gaul, and under Roman law must depart the capital before spring ended.
Over dinner, it is likely that Caesar told Lepidus and Albinus how much he was looking forward to being joined on the campaign by his niece’s son Gaius Octavius—Octavian, as he would be called by later historians. Now eighteen, Octavius had joined Caesar for the last stages of the war in Spain in 45 B.C. and, along with Albinus, had accompanied Caesar back to Rome in October. Caesar had then sent the youth to Apollonia in Epirus, western Greece, a renowned educational center. Caesar’s plan for Octavius, said Velleius Paterculus, who later knew and served him, was “a view to training his remarkable talents by liberal studies” for six months at Apollonia, “with the intention of taking him with him as his companion in his contemplated wars with the Getae and theParthians.”¹⁸
Over the past few months, squadrons of cavalry had regularly ridden down to Apollonia from the legion camp in Macedonia to join Octavius, so he could train with them and improve his riding skills and javelin-throwing in preparation for the new militarycampaign.¹⁹ Caesar had seen great potential in the youth and had come to consider young Octavius like a son, as his will would soon attest.
Caesar drank conservatively at Lepidus’s dinner. He was noted for being an abstemious drinker. Cato the Younger had said of him, “Caesar was the only sober man who ever tried to wreck the Constitution.”²⁰ But this did not prevent him from joining his companions in a cup or two of wine following their March 14 meal—many Romans diluted their wine by adding water, up to five times as much water as wine. Caesar never allowed his mind to be idle, often dictating two or more letters at the same time to several secretaries while traveling. Now, according to Plutarch, once the table had been cleared after the meal and the trio chatted over their wine cups, Caesar’s male secretary brought him several letters to sign.
As he was signing, either Lepidus or Albinus, but more likely Albinus, put a philosophical question: “What sort of death is best?”
Caesar immediately answered, “A sudden one.”²¹
Albinus, as he made his way back to his city domus in his litter that evening following dinner with the Dictator, would have reflected on the irony of Caesar’s answer. Albinus and his fellow conspirators intended to give Caesar his preferred sudden death within hours.